01/08/2016 10:03AM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Michael Comb, General Manager Louisiana Sugar Cane Cooperative, Inc. | Photos by Ron Olivier
Sugar cane has been commercially grown in Louisiana for more than 200 years and it seems each year is unique. Some years are highlighted by a good or bad growing season, while others are known for good or bad harvest conditions. Louisiana sugar cane farmers always hope for the best, but rarely receive their wish. Unfortunately this year gave us a relatively poor growing season and awful harvest conditions.
Old timers will tell you that a dry spring followed by ample summer rain makes for a good sugar cane crop. This year we had just the opposite. Too much rain in early to mid spring made cultivation and herbicide application very difficult. It also resulted in poor timing of fertilizer application and leaching of fertilizer because of wet conditions. The early wet conditions led to poor root development, which stunted growth when the dry conditions arrived during the summer months. Fortunately, we have excellent sugar cane varieties that recover quickly from adverse conditions. These varieties are developed through the joint cooperation of the American Sugar Cane League, LSU Ag Center and the USDA Sugar Cane Research Station near Houma. This three-way partnership guides the efforts of the most important sugar cane research activity in Louisiana, the varietal development program.
Louisiana is the farthest sugar cane growing region from the equator in the world. Since sugar cane is a tropical plant and Louisiana is a subtropical climate, the region is faced with more difficulties than other areas. The biggest challenge is the short harvest season. Harvest cannot begin until the sugar content in the stalks is high enough to make it economical to process, and the season must end before winter temperatures drop too low and cause the crop to spoil. Therefore, Louisiana sugar cane growers do not have the luxury of stopping the harvest during wet conditions, which makes Acadiana one of the only areas in the world where sugar cane is harvested nonstop regardless of the weather. Harvest starts no earlier than late September and rarely runs past mid January. Other sugar cane growing regions harvest for six to eleven months per year while Louisiana only has slightly more than three months to complete the season. This creates significantly higher capital cost per unit volume for growers and millers in this state.
The 2015 harvest began well, dry conditions and excellent sugar recovery through most of the cane belt was good news. Although sugar cane tonnage is below normal, most growers felt the higher sugar recovery could result in a decent crop. Unfortunately, this all changed around the third week of harvest when dry conditions ended and the rain began. At the time of this article, approximately 23 inches of rain has fallen in the St. Martinville area since the start of harvest. This is more than double the average rainfall for the last 10 years for the entire harvest season. This year could end up being the wettest harvest season in modern times and it has many sugar cane farmers feeling uncertain about their future. Wet seasons cause extremely difficult harvest conditions resulting in delivery of massive amounts of mud, shuck and debris to the cane mills. This makes sugar yields plummet; they are currently running more than 10 percent less than last year. Growers are faced with much higher harvest costs because of additional fuel consumption, more equipment failure and more man hours of labor. The deeply rutted fields make drainage more difficult resulting in reduced yield for the next year, which creates a multiple year loss. Although sugar prices are slightly higher than last year, all of the added expenses and lower yields will surely make the 2015 sugar cane season an unprofitable one.
It is important to note that the sugar industry is vital to Louisiana’s economy—with an annual impact of $2.2 billion to cane growers and raw factories, while also generating an overall economic value of $3.5 billion. Sugar cane is grown on more than 400,000 acres across 22 Louisiana parishes with a production of approximately 13 million tons of cane yearly. More than 17,000 employees work on the farms and in the factories, the state has 11 raw sugar factories. Suffice to say that sugar cane production and processing is a major part of the Louisiana economy and a way of life for hundreds of farming families.
The Louisiana Sugar Cane industry is resilient, but this year could cause some growers to cease operations and shutter more sugar cane factories. Even those that remain in business will feel the negative impact of the 2015 season for many years.